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‘Downton Abbey’ almost a ‘Masterpiece’

Published: January 21, 2011
Section: Arts, Etc.


It starts with a tragedy. The pilot of PBS’s British import “Downton Abbey” begins with the upper class Crawley family hearing the news that the Titanic has sunk. The noble patriarch of the family, Lord Grantham (played by “Masterpiece” veteran Hugh Bonneville), is shaken by the fact that his immediate heirs have not survived the disaster. Since he only has daughters, his beloved estate in the English countryside, from which the series takes its name, will go to a distant middle-class relative, a result that would inevitably upset the family’s and their servants’ old-world mode of living. “Downton Abbey” is a clever and surprisingly lighthearted miniseries that illustrates what happens to people when an old world crumbles in favor of a new one.

Oscar winner Julian Fellowes has penned a very clever script. He smartly portrays the old world through the eyes of the Crawley family as well as their servants. This has the effect of painting a vibrant, complex picture of a doomed, but still elegant, way of life. It’s fascinating to watch what it takes to run a grand estate. As the Crawley family attempts to keep the estate within the immediate family through attempted courtships, the servants keep the estate functioning, preparing extravagant dinners and answering the family’s many demands.

This, however, couldn’t have been done without superb casting. Bonneville plays Lord Grantham with the grace of a gentleman, but with an awareness that the times are changing rapidly around him. This is illustrated wonderfully through Lord Grantham’s relationship with his newly hired valet John Bates (Brendan Coyle), a friend he made during the war. An old war wound makes it difficult for Bates to do his job, forcing Grantham to decide whether to do what’s best for his estate and hire a new, more capable valet, or to be a loyal friend. Coyle, in turn, gives his character an air of a strong man driven to vulnerability.

The clash between the old world and the new is what propels the show forward and makes what would seem to be a simple plot (who will inherit the estate?) into a whirligig of shifting alliances, strong loyalties and ambitions. When the new heir Matthew Crawley (Dan Stevens) arrives at Downton, he is baffled by the family’s expectations. He is determined to place his profession as a doctor before the estate, emphasizing his different priorities. His self-righteous approach ends up insulting the servants, making for very compelling viewing.

While “Downton Abbey” has its share of drama, it is done in a very light-heartened tone, almost in the style of a Jane Austen novel. The Dowager of Grantham, played with great fun by Maggie Smith, is almost a caricature of a stuffy, upper-class matron, resulting in many moments of hilarity. Rather than being invested in the characters, viewers are invested in the storyline.

There is an aesthetic pleasure that comes from watching the show. The estate of Downton Abbey is nestled near a quaint town in the beautiful green countryside. The Crawley home is grand in scale with numerous rooms adorned with impressive trinkets of a luxurious lifestyles. It is no wonder that Lord Grantham is willing to sacrifice anything to keep the estate and the servants go to such great lengths to keep it running. For both, Downton Abbey is a home.

PBS will air the remaining episodes through January, allowing them to be available online until the end of February. Future episodes seem to offer a frothy plot, fully-realized world and an evening’s entertainment that should not be missed.